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In a World Dazzled by Sharepoint, Where is Workflow.ntf?

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Last week I posted a comment asking this question in response to Ed Brill's post "Domino vs SharePoint redux":

I was approached this week at my current client by the "Sharepoint Developer" who had been asked by a senior manager to find out what it would take to build a planned workflow application in Notes. In this case he had already established how to do this in Sharepoint, but no one on that team had any Notes experience. After our conversation I think we were both surprised to learn that the other product was "good at workflow".

I learned that Sharepoint has a configurable (and wizard driven) workflow setup capability built into Sharepoint Designer, while Notes requires either Lotus Workflow (which I don't believe is cheap), a third-party or open-source add-on, or a "roll your own" approach. Only because I happen to have put together a prototype workflow application based on OpenNTF's Qenos workflow framework (VERY cool btw) was I able to demonstrate something that might compare to Sharepoint's "out of the box" capabilities.

So the question I have is this: If "workflow" is what Notes is so good at, why has IBM not included a "workflow.ntf" in the default shipped product? Seems pretty clear to me that Sharepoint is exploiting this glaring oversight, and its time IBM stepped up and either bought out a business partner, redid Lotus Workflow, or put resources behind making the Qenos Open Source workflow tool "out of the box ready" (resources already go toward Linux, so this is not a big stretch). Other business partners with workflow tools will have to adapt by making their products that much better, or shift gears altogether.

Judging by some of the reaction to this (See comments 7, 22, 25, 26, 28, 30), I seem to have struck a nerve.  OK, so I'm not the only one who recognizes the *need* for an out-of-the-box workflow engine in Notes.  My suspicion that partner uproar is the main obstacle to this happening has also been seconded in private conversations.  While I appreciate the  concern partners would have over potential lost business, I believe those concerns do not outweigh the potential benefits to IBM, the overall Lotus community, and probably even themselves.  Consider this:
  • Plugging glaring holes in Notes' out-of-the-box capabilities can only improve its competitive position vis a vis Sharepoint et. al.
  • Not giving inexperienced developers already inside companies what they need to easily build good applications with Notes is a big reason that many of those applications suck, and that is a big reason so many companies have abandoned Notes as a platform (my SuperNTF template is a more general solution targetted at this problem).
  • More companies using Notes for real applications (using said out of the box capabiity) means more companies recognize Notes as a good application platform.
  • Greater demand for custom Notes applications can only help (all) business partners selling products and services.
  • Many partners with workflow solutions have OTHER solutions to sell also, so losses on the workflow front will likely be mitigated by gains in other markets.
  • Many partners have workflow solutions that are likely "better" in some ways than anything IBM is likely to ship, so those companies using workflow.ntf will look at partner solutions when they want to take their apps to a higher level.

Rob Novak (Comment 28) did shine a hopeful light on the situation however:

...there will be an extensible and user-manageable workflow model delivered in the Quickr templates...that can (surprise) be modified and easily used in Domino applications. Not its focus, but it'll work.

So Rob, can we get our hands on that template before Quickr ships?

For those actually looking for one of those commercial workflow solutions, click "Read More"...

Alan Lepofsky maintains an extensive list of partner offerings here (be sure to check page 2 of this list).  I counted six workflow products (3 on each page), so there is a lot to choose from.

As of this writing, they are:

AdHoc - Workflow Engine for Lotus Domino: Workflow engine solution enabling you to drive documents and forms through different workflows without any coding.
DYSANT - Process: A complete Lotus Notes/Domino based workflow framework.
IBM - Lotus Workflow: Speeds the creation and deployment of workflow-oriented applications. It allows organizations to standardize and streamline time-consuming, people-based activities and track their progress.
PAVONE - Espresso Workflow: Optimizes the core areas of workflow modelling, control and care through numerous intuitive amplifications and new functions.
Percussion - PowerFlow: Add workflow logic to any Lotus Domino application without affecting the application design. PowerFlow's graphical interface makes workflow-enabling any Domino application extremely simple.
TeamWork Solutions - ProcessIt!:  A revolutionary tool for managing both Notes- and web-based workflows. Fast and easy to use, it's a powerful,flexible tool that doesn't require programming to set up or administer.  ProcessIt! has been specifically designed to minimize, even eliminate, the need for code in most situations.


1 - Kevin, I think you are on the money here. We work mostly with SMB and I think something like workflow.ntf would encourage the IT resource in these organisations to dip their toes in Notes development and therefore bring more value to their investment in Notes/Domino.

I have mentioned openntf to encourage some administrators/power users etc in these customers but havent seen much uptake. I think it would be very different it was an IBM template that shipped with Notes. And given that it would be supported again I would be happier to advocate it.

I think the business apps that are being added to Quickr are great but I feel that similar perhaps a smaller subset including workflow should be done for Notes/Domino customers.

BTW - great work on the superntf!

2 - Kevin...I'm new in Notes. Could you explain me WHY Notes is workflow friendly? What features make it better than other frameworks.

Thanks in advance.

3 - Kevin, good points all the way around. I'm all for making it easier to let users be self-sufficient, I just don't want it to be implemented in such a way that it precludes going off the beaten path. If I end up having to code to a workflow framework instead of doing some ad hoc @MailSend statements, that's going to make my job as a developer more difficult and I'm going to oppose it. Having said that, having the option of building a complex workflow in a GUI designer would be nice. I'll be sure to check out Qenos and some of the other OpenNTF options.

4 - Thanks for the thoughts guys. It's a complicated issue but it does boil down to making it easy for developers to succeed, regardless of their experience level.

5 - Kevin, I couldn't agree more that applications that suck are a huge hit on Notes' reputation. I've seen many companies drop Notes as, just like you mentioned, junior developers did what they could with what they had and it just wasn't enough. The VB guy did miracles without knowing what he was doing...

So, end users having an "unusual" mail client, and really weird apps, that is a highly dangerous combination for Notes. And it struck in many companies here in the Montreal(QC) area.

I wish all young Notes developers would go to www.interfacematters.com to learn a few UI things because the end user often has the last word. It's up to the developers to put only good words in their mouths.

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